July 30, 2017

State of the Empire, Summer 2017

A little early, I suppose, to call them the Greatest basketball team that ever played.  It's been a good run, but Bill Russell still would laugh.

On the other hand, there is a case to be made.  Here is the Warriors' ELO rating as computed by Five Thirty Eight after the Finals (and an explanatory article written before):

It is very, very good.  This is, in fact, the highest ELO rating achieved by any team, ever.

But, as summer began it all seemed very much at risk.  Four of the Warriors' six best players were free agents, two of them former MVPs.  The early betting was that they would keep Curry and Durant, but probably would not be able keep both Iguodala and Livingston.

Yet they did (thanks Kevin).  With the contracts all tied up, the Warriors will bring back exactly the same top seven as they had last year, and that group differed from the prior two teams only in the  Upgrade to Durant / Downgrade to Pachulia.  So we'll be seeing more of this in the years to come.

While the xBarnes +Durant maneuver deservedly got most of the credit for the team's resurgence after the disaster of 2016, they made another change that I believe was almost equally important.  For all their charm and skill, Championship Warriors 1.0 lacked muscle and grit, and as the 2016 playoffs progressed this became more and more evident.  To correct that they added David West and JaVale McGee, two large men who are hard to push around. West, in particular, takes shit from no man, as the Cleveland Cavaliers learned in the Finals.  West came here to chew bubblegum and win championships, and is all out of bubblegum, so he re-signed immediately.  True to character JaVale dithered, but after a summer of flirting with the likes of the Clippers, he too has returned to the fold.

Sadly, Ian Clark will probably not be rejoining the team in 2017-18.  The Warriors elected instead to sign free agent Nick Young, who is literally one of my motivational posters for this act of infamy.  He's a legendary airhead - the nickname Swaggy P does not connote a high degree of professionalism in any case.  Back in the day he and JaVale used to run together in Washington, when that team was winning about a third of its games.

They say he's changed.  Durant, Curry and Green all recruited him, and he took less money than he could have made with the Lakers.  Well, we'll see.  I'm not giving that cell a green highlight just yet - give me Clark, the consummate professional, any day.

So, of the top ten players from the 2017 championship team, nine are returning, and the 10th is (arguably) an upgrade the core players like.

I thought the response of the Warriors front office to the collapse of 2016 was interesting.  They signed Durant, brought in a couple of big men, and then cleared almost everyone else off the roster:  Bogut, Barbosa, Speights, and Rush all went out the door.  People said this was to clear cap space for Durant, but I think it was also to wash 2016 right out of their hair.  Someone had to pay the price for that collapse, and it wasn't going to be the all-stars.

But, ironically, the Warriors appear to have gotten better at the bottom of the roster this off season.  In the first championship year there weren't many real players there, although Ezeli was effective before he got hurt.  But last year they bought into the draft and took McCaw, who, it turns out, plays like an NBA player.  This year they bought in again and drafted Jordan Bell, who looked very Draymond-y in Summer League.  And then this Israeli guy Casspi they just got is 6-9 and can really shoot.

So, while they stood pat (against all odds) at the top of the roster, the Warriors did a lot at the bottom.  I wondered how much of this was just churn and how much was reasoned analysis.  I think mostly the latter.  Here is +/- per 100 possessions for each Warriors player in the 2017 playoffs, plotted against minutes played:

Except for Damian Jones, who has been injured, everyone with a negative +/- is gone.  Everyone else stays.

It says a lot:  While other teams tried bold trades or just imploded, the Warriors spent the summer methodically trying to get better, and probably succeeded.  They are acting like a team that understands that no matter how the gods have favored you, nothing is written, everything is contingent, only the paranoid survive.  Isn't that wonderful?

I look forward to seeing the (slightly improved) Greatest Team That Ever Played take the court next season.


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